Cligès, by Chrétien de Troyes

Introduction to the Poem: Structure and Technique

Cligès is a poem by the mediæval French poet Chrétien de Troyes, dating from the late 12th Century AD (c 1176).  It is the third of Chrétien’s five Arthurian romances; Lancelot, or Le Chevalier de la Charrete (Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart); Érec et Énide (Erec and Enide); Cligès (Cligès); Yvain, or Le Chevalier au Lion (Owain, or The Knight with the Lion); and Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal (Perceval, or The Story of the Grail).  The knight Cligès and his love for his uncle’s wife, Fenice, is the story that is told in this poem.  Cligès is contained in seven manuscripts and a multitude of fragmentary documents.  The poem comprises 6,664 eight-syllable lines in rhymed couplets.  Prose versions have existed since at least the 15th Century AD.

There are several techniques of style that set Chrétien de Troyes and his Cligès apart from the works of his contemporaries.  According to Claude Luttrell, Chrétien used many Latin writing techniques such as nature locus (sky, seas, animals), imaginem (creating literary portraits), coniungo (construction of an interlacing text), amplificato (augmenting or diminishing critical issues) and interpretatio (explanation, translation, signification) to convey a realistic romance story.  If the text of Cligès is divided into two sections, or rather two separate stories, it can be more easily understood.  The first story tells of Cligès’ father’s adventures and the second contains Cligès’ adventures.  Cligès scholars Z P Zaddy and Douglas Kelly support the dual story approach, but also divide the text even further to create a new structure where the two stories are split into eight episodes.  This allows the text a more dramatic read.

Outline of the Story of Cligès

The tale begins with the story of Cligès’ parents, Alexander and Soredamors.  The son of the Greek emperor Alexander (who is also named Alexander) journeys to Britain to become a knight to King Arthur.  The young Alexander gains favour with King Arthur, is knighted, and assists in retaking Windsor Castle from the traitorous Count Angrès.  During his time at court, Alexander meets Soredamors, King Arthur’s niece.  She and Alexander quickly fall in love, yet neither can tell the other of their feelings.  Queen Guinevere takes notice and encourages them to express their mutual love.  Once they marry, their child Cligès is born.

Alexander and his family then return to Greece only to discover that Alexander’s brother, Alis, has seized the Greek throne after their father’s death.  Even though Alexander is the rightful heir, he yields to Alis under the proviso that Alis not marry or have children, so that the throne will eventually pass to Cligès.  Alexander dies and Cligès is raised in Greece.

Years after Alexander’s death, Alis marries.  He chooses Fenice, the daughter of the German Emperor.  Thus begins the affair of Cligès and Fenice.  Cligès falls in love with his uncle’s wife.  Fenice, in turn, loves Cligès (who follows in his father’s footsteps to Arthur’s kingdom to be knighted).  Like his father, Cligès does well in King Arthur’s court.  Cligès participates in tournaments and displays courtly manners.  He is knighted and returns home to Greece.  As Cligès and Fenice still love each other, Fenice concocts a plan to use magic to trick Alis (allowing them to escape).

With the help of a potion provided by her governess, Fenice fakes illness so that she could eventually “die” and be reunited with Cligès.  Before she could fake her death, three doctors were called to heal her.  On realising Fenice’s deception, the doctors torture her to discover her secrets.  Fenice says nothing and is eventually rescued by Cligès.  Soon they are found in their tower hiding-place by a warrior of Alis, Bertrand, who then tells Alis.  Cligès goes to Arthur to ask for help to get his kingdom back from his uncle.  Alis dies while Cligès is away.  He and Fenice marry (Cligès becoming Emperor of Greece).

Literary Criticism and Analysis of Cligès

In Cligès and Courtliness, Norris J Lacy analyses the characters in Cligès and argues that Chrétien uses the story as an ironic display of chivalric character.  Even though Cligès shows the ability to master the social graces and expressive style of the court, it is without essence.  Lacy asserts that the activities of Cligès and Fenice seem to typify courtliness or chivalric attributes.  Yet, at their very core, these actions are immoral.

Lacy believes that Chrétien’s Cligès is meant to throw doubt on the value and validity of courtliness.  The discourse concerning morality about Fenice’s character is taken up again in “The Public and Private of Cliges’ Fenice” written by D Nelson.  Nelson, like Lacy, claims that Fenice’s actions are not moral, even though readers are expected to celebrate her blissful ending with Cligès.  Despite her happy marriage at the end, Nelson notes how Fenice fails in avoiding Iseult’s reputation.  Iseult (Isolde) is another adulteress upon whom Fenice looks down.

Nelson goes on to say that as a result of Fenice’s plotting to maintain her relationship with Cligès, she presents herself as “an adulteress who went to any extreme to satisfy her passion”.  Instead of being remembered as the heroine, Fenice is remembered as a sinner who must atone for her sins.  D Nelson finds such atonement takes form in the presentation of the three doctors who attempt to take care of Fenice when she feigns illness.

When the doctors start to hurt Fenice to discover her true plot, Nelson claims that the readers “heartily approve”.  Because of such assumed approval, the readers, therefore, would view the torture Fenice experiences as a way of atonement or necessary punishment for her immoral actions.  Cligès scholar Lucie Polak verifies the Tristan and Isolde reworking found in the text but also proposes that Cligès himself may have been modelled after Ovid’s character Narcissus.

Later Versions of Cligès

A version of Cligès, in Middle High German, is known from a few fragments and references as discussed in Cligès, Auf der Grundlage des Textes von Wendelin Foerster (Cligès, based on the texts of Wendelin Foerster).  In the 15th Century (c AD 1455), an anonymous Burgundian writer fashioned a prose version of Chrétien’s Cligès.  That author called the work Le Livre de Alixandre Empereur de Constentinoble et de Cligès son filz (The Book of Alexander, Emperor of Constantinople, and of his son Cligès).  This prose edition differs from the original in various aspects, and the story is assumed to have been adapted to the cultural and political circumstances of the Burgundian court at that time.  Its first modern prose edition was Wendelin Foerster’s Chrétien De Troyes in Prose: The Burgundian Érec and Cligès.

The character Cligès himself appears in other stories, including in Claris et Laris (Claris and Laris), and in the First Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval, where the father of Cligès is named King Lac.  According to Alison Adams, in the Anglo-Norman octosyllabic Romanz du Reis Yder (Romance of King Yder) Cligès serves Queen Guenloie (Guinevere) until he is expelled from her court after he criticises her love for Yder, but Yder later promises to reconcile them.  In Les Merveilles de Rigomer (The Marvels of Rigomer), Cligès hails from Greece and participates in the quest to conquer Rigomer Castle as one of Gawain’s many companions.  Giovanna Summerfield tells us that Cligès defeats an undead knight in his own episode.

Conclusion

Written by the mediæval French poet Chrétien de Troyes, the poem tells the story of the knight Cligès and his love for his uncle’s wife, Fenice.  The sections related to Arthuriana in some detail tell of the son of the Greek emperor Alexander (also named Alexander) who journeys to Britain to become a knight to King Arthur.  This young Alexander gains favour with King Arthur, is knighted, and assists in retaking Windsor Castle.  During his time at court, Alexander meets King Arthur’s niece.  She and Alexander quickly fall in love, yet neither can tell the other of their mutual feelings.  Guinevere takes notice and encourages them to express their love.  Once they marry, their child Cligès is born.  Later on, like his father, Cligès does well in King Arthur’s court, participates in tournaments, and displays courtly manners.  He is knighted and returns home to Greece.  Eventually, Cligès goes to Arthur to ask for help to get his kingdom back from his uncle, Alis.  In later versions of Cligès, for instance, the Anglo-Norman Romanz du Reis Yder (Romance of King Yder), Cligès serves Queen Guenloie (Guinevere) until he is expelled from her court after he criticises her love for Yder.  In Les Merveilles de Rigomer (The Marvels of Rigomer), Cligès participates in the quest to conquer Rigomer Castle as one of Gawain’s many companions.

 

The poem Cligès is somewhat of a reworking of the Tristan and Isolde tale. Even though Cligès shows the ability to master social graces and expressive courtly style, they are without substance.  Cligès and Fenice seem to typify courtly chivalric attributes.  Yet, at the very core, their actions are immoral.  This throws doubt on the value and validity of courtliness.  Fenice’s actions are not moral, even though readers are expected to celebrate her happy ending with Cligès.  Despite her blissful marriage, in the end, Fenice fails in avoiding Isolde’s reputation.  Fenice looks down upon Isolde.  Fenice is remembered as a sinner, instead of being remembered as the heroine.  So, at its core, Cligès is an “anti” Tristan and Isolde story.  Where Cligès and Fenice are going through the motions of their “lustful” actions (still being hollow inside), Tristan and Isolde know full well the solid core reasons for their actions and, in the end, even though they do not have a “happy ending”, they die knowing that their love was true and justified.

 

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